Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Nike fields controversy

Published Sep 07, 2018 05:03pm
The brand gives a new meaning to its tagline ‘Just do it’.

In a span of a couple of weeks, Nike have been linked to two stories that have gone viral and got a lot of people talking and reacting. It is often said that there is no such thing as bad publicity, but the recent controversy around their ads does raise some important questions for the brand including – how far they are willing to stand up for something and at what cost?

The new Nike ad campaign, which is built around the idea of athletes overcoming obstacles, features several sports personalities, including Serena Williams, the tennis champion, and Colin Kaepernick, a former NFL player. Both stars were in the spotlight recently for very different reasons. And Nike is not too far behind.

Williams was criticised by the head of the French Tennis Federation, Bernard Guidicelli, for wearing a black cat suit for her match at the French Open. According to him, the outfit did not respect the game. Williams, who gave birth last year, has been suffering from blood clots ever since and has to take precautions, especially when playing sports. Wearing fitted clothing, such as tights or a bodysuit, helps the blood circulation in her body, thereby reducing the occurrence of clots. For Williams, wearing a cat suit was not a fashion statement but a medical necessity. Unfortunately, this incident prompted French Open officials to introduce a strict dress code for future games.


Things didn’t go as smoothly for Nike with the Kaepernick ad. Public opinion on his inclusion in the campaign was divided, with many expressing outrage at Nike for having him as a face in the campaign. Many consider his actions to be against American values and nationalism.


Things didn’t go as smoothly for Nike with the Kaepernick ad. Public opinion on his inclusion in the campaign was divided, with many expressing outrage at Nike for having him as a face in the campaign. Many consider his actions to be against American values and nationalism.

Kaepernick is an American football player, who, in 2016, famously started the kneeling movement during the NFL Games, to protest against the brutal and unjust treatment of minorities by the police in the US. His actions and social activism won him President Trump’s ire and venom, and he has been embroiled in controversy ever since. A polarising figure in sport, no football league has been willing to sign him on since 2016. In fact, he recently sued the NFL for colluding to keep him out of the sport. This is the man, who Nike have chosen, to be the face of their new campaign, with the tag line ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.’

In Williams’ case, there was a lot of outrage against the French Tennis Federation for trying to politicise and control female athletes through their dressing. The organisation was accused of living in a different century, and having double standards. Many sports enthusiasts, viewers, commentators and celebrities agreed that it was time that rules around sporting attire were relaxed to be more inclusive and open minded, and that emphasis be put on skill and expertise and not on stuffy traditions.


As a form of protest, people burned their Nike shoes across many states; some cut off the iconic swishes off their socks and many vowed to never buy Nike products again. The backlash was seen in the political arena as well, with some well-known personalities calling for Americans to boycott Nike and to pull their investment away from Nike.


Nike has been a long-time sponsor of Williams, and after the fiasco at Roland Garros (the French Open), all eyes were on what her choice of clothing would be for the US Open. Nike capitalised on this, and in a clever move, had Williams wear a one shoulder, black and brown, silhouette dress with a tulle skirt, designed for them by Louis Vuitton’s menswear artistic director, Virgil Abloh. The Nike team timed their new ad to coincide with her match at the US Open. The ad, which shows a home video of a young Williams, aged about nine, with her father and former coach, Richard Williams, practising her swing, as he tells her to imagine that she is playing at the US Open, has already had five million views. The tag line was – It’s only a crazy dream till you do it.

Williams did not give into the controversy, and took the episode in her stride, stating that she had had a very positive conversation with the French Open Federation about the issue. She dodged the media when questioned on the topic, and remained positive and neutral. Nike got the publicity they needed, and they stood by a woman who made a statement and epitomised the very core of their campaign – a woman who got past obstacles and remained focused on her goals and wins.

Things didn’t go as smoothly for Nike with the Kaepernick ad. Public opinion on his inclusion in the campaign was divided, with many expressing outrage at Nike for having him as a face in the campaign. Many consider his actions to be against American values and nationalism.

As a form of protest, people burned their Nike shoes across many states; some cut off the iconic swishes off their socks and many vowed to never buy Nike products again. The backlash was seen in the political arena as well, with some well-known personalities calling for Americans to boycott Nike and to pull their investment away from Nike. Consequently, Nike share prices fell by four percent and the brand has found itself in the middle of a very nationalistic debate in a divided America.

So far, Nike have not backed away from their support of Kaepernick and have even funded his charity that works for social justice. However, the more Nike maintain their stance, the more the anger against the brand is growing and gaining traction across the US. Many question Nike’s value system and what they stand for.

Nike have chosen a risky path, but many feel that for a brand to stay relevant, such gambles are necessary. More importantly, young people are increasingly seeking out brands that stand for something, and for Nike, the tough bit is to decide who they want to please. No company, let alone a brand of this strength, wants to alienate a segment of their market, but whichever way Nike go from here, there will be disappointed consumers. The silver lining for Nike is that their consumer base extends beyond America, and beyond the scope of American politics, so the damage will be limited in scope.

With Williams, Nike got an opportunity to make a statement that resonated with many. With Kaepernick, they have to decide which side of history they want to be on.

Sheherzad Kaleem is a documentary filmmaker based in Dubai. sheherzadk@gmail.com